Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Good Muslim

The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam is the sequel to her novel, The Golden Age. In that accomplished novel she chronicled the 1971 Bangladesh War for Independence through the fortunes of the Haque family.  Rehana Haque was a widow who was thrust into the war because of the involvement of her two teenage children, Maya and Sohail. Anam’s portrait of a quiet family without political leanings suddenly finding they have to choose sides and take a stand in a civil war they neither wanted nor saw coming is a compelling reading experience.

The Good Muslim picks up the story of the Haques in 1984. The war is long over but the recovery has been slow.  Rehana seems to have spent all her energies saving her children during the war and is now too tired even to referee their constant conflict with one another. Sohail has gone from being a revolution created freedom fighter to devout Muslim, widower and single parent.  Maya abandoned her surgical studies and has been working as a village doctor in rural Bangladesh. The unconditional love and loyalties that once bound the family have been destroyed.

Maya’s antagonism and bitterness is the driving force of this novel.  Immediately following the war she dedicated herself to providing abortions for women raped by enemy soldiers and to delivering babies to make up for the lives she took during the war. Practicing medicine in the countryside has done nothing to bring her hope for the future or assuage her guilt. Constantly butting her head up against the patriarchal traditions of Bangladesh and appalling medical conditions Maya finally gives up and returns home.

Sohail’s grief over his dead wife as well as his actions during the war have left him seeking solace in religion.  He spends his days spreading the message while his young son is allowed to run wild.  Sohail’s spiritual awakening seems like cowardice to Maya. She cannot accept that he may have found a way to move forward. She longs to be Sohail’s confessor. She is convinced that he has not admitted to himself what he did during the war and therefore cannot be healed. Maya takes extreme action when Sohail, ignoring her pleas, sends his son to an Islamic seminary school.

In The Golden Age, Anam showed us an innocent family desperate to understand and survive a civil war. The Good Muslim takes these now damaged people from that point of lost innocence to the fight to survive the peace.  Anam does what too often historical novelists fail to do. She makes the events of the time believably affect her characters. They do not just react to the political and cultural actions happening around them they interact within those actions and as a result they change. 

This sophomore effort by Tahmima Anam fulfills the promise she showed in The Golden Age.  Life in the aftermath of war is handled with authority, compassion and imagination. She clearly understands the experiences and culture she is writing about and is willing to allow her characters to be less than perfect, always likeable people. This is not a novel about traditional heroes but with Anam’s commanding and colorful writing it is a novel about real people whose lives are lived in the kind of extremes that most of us know nothing about but thanks to Anam’s skill we can understand and appreciate this world.

Do you need to read The Golden Age to enjoy The Good Muslim? No. Will reading The Golden Age give you a deeper appreciation of The Good Muslim? Definitely.

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